Saturday, May 8, 2010

Action at a Distance

My imagination has recently been piqued by an explanation of Newton's law of gravity. For all that he contributed to physics, he famously did not bother to explain why gravity works. It's academically referred to as a black box theory, perhaps the most famous one. And today, why gravity works remains a mystery. Similar black box theories - those which forego describing any mechanism - are occasionally studied and occasionally derided depending on their context.

The Universe — Beyond The Big Bang — Videos

That a theory - or more like a law, or set of laws - needs no explanation is counterintuitive but also strangely liberating.

When I learn something, my instinct is to wrap my head around it - to get a feel for it from all angles, to compare and contrast it to other bits of knowledge, and to try to grasp the underlying principles that make it fit together. Perhaps that's just the normal response: we seek to understand things.

Newton's curious depiction of gravity, on the other hand, separates learning from understanding.

And beyond separating the two, it suggests that understanding might actually set you back. His theory was largely resisted for some time because it lacked an underlying explanation. Its utility and predictive power overcame this hurdle.

Following Einstein, the current consensus is that some laws of the universe are so distant from our scale of experience that we can't be expected to understand their mechanism, much less intuitively grasp them. There's an intuitive appeal in this explanation about how difficult it is to grasp very large and very small things. But that doesn't make it true.

Returning to Newton, one question I've been asking myself is whether similar black box explanations may apply to things of an everyday scale. It goes against every fiber of scientific thought: Theories with meager explanations seem less plausible and poorly thought out. And yet it seems strangely plausible - that principles may be unfolding on a human-scale which we couldn't fathom - if only as a possibility.

At the least, this line of thought emphasizes the role of observation and empiricism. As 'theoretical' as the notion of gravity is, its proposal still required real-world observation - without that, it would have made absolutely no sense.

The scientific method suggests that we have our presuppositions and hypotheses about how the world works, and then data is used to either back them up or to falsify them. But perhaps the take-home message is that the reverse is at least possible, namely that we start with data and then learn how it fits together. And where a set of awkward principles - such as action at a distance, which, let's face it, sounds more like magic than physics - so perfectly consolidates the data, understanding might be ignored, be it temporarily or deliberately.
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chess & Go

Combine mounds of snow and Chessmaster 9000 – a PC game – and I’ve been getting a bit too into chess.

Growing up I never really got chess. Go – widely considered chess’ Eastern counterpart – caught my attention for some time in college.

In Go, unlike chess, all pieces have equal value and the board begins empty. Players take turn placing pieces on the board, with the goal of capturing territory (and enemy pieces) by surrounding spaces.

The board is a 19 x 19 grid, and each piece is placed on an intersection, which gives you 361 spots for a piece. This accounts for much of its appeal – at the start of the game, the board is overwhelming and abstract, full of possibility. Go is also notorious for giving computer programmers a hard time – its open possibilities make it impossible to program a computer engine comparable to the best Go players.

Nonetheless, beyond the basics, learning Go was deceptively hard, and coupled with a determined friend who was also a beginner, we spent a lot of time making no progress.

Chess, by contrast, has recently struck me as full of personality and intrigue. Pieces take on their own persona, and it’s your job to make them collaborate. Rooks are bulky stabilizers of sorts, while bishops have a strong up-field attack. Both pieces have long-range control, as does the queen – yet her absolute power makes her overly prone to enemy attack. Most aspects of the game I’m still stumped on. Knights in particular have a whimsy movement, which makes them fun to watch until they’re suddenly staring you down.

Yet the strength of each individual piece is conferred mostly by their overall arrangement - their sum inevitably much greater than the total of their parts. In this sense, pawns are like football's offensive (or defensive) linemen - unglamorous and overlooked, yet providing a structure for success.

The fun perhaps comes from going back and forth between attack and analysis. Each move by your opponent requires pause to try to figure out what it accomplishes. Analyzing his potential lines of attack requires an almost Zen-like state of scanning opened lines and spaces. Similar to a geometric proof, the best moves are utilitarian, accomplishing multiple objectives at once. Not unlike life, you need a plan, coupled with knowledge of general principles, and flexibility to respond to the unexpected. You face intriguing interplay between ideas and reality, theory and application.

When stuck it can sometimes help to change your view. It’s not unreasonable to personify the pieces, especially the king – it can help to stand in his shoes and ask what sort of defense he might lobby for. Make no mistake, we're talking about a competition of intellectual prowess which calls for excruciating patience bordering mental torture, not a town-square with Dickensian chatter. But where Go is impenetrably cold and abstract, there is a warm center to chess.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Go Game #2 w/Ramon, 12/23/2005, eshm; (2)Untilted, 12/19/2009, Matthew Bradley; (3)White Knight, 11/31/2009, Mukumbara;
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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ideas and Ego

I’ll often approach things by assuming that the world is right and I am wrong. I just finished a powerful book by Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, which epitomized the role of humility in approaching ideas.

Sowell’s book is a backlash against a group of people he calls intellectuals – those whose professions begin and end in ideas. In many ways, battles between ideas are shaped more by emotion than by rational intellect. Much of intellectual debate rests upon empty arguments. Retorts you commonly hear in the media – “you’re oversimplifying the issue”, “you just have too much faith in the free market”, “you’re not seeing the complexities of the issue” – don’t hold much ground.

What begins as a simple and even-handed look at intellectuals, by the last chapter, turns into a rather acidic critique. But even this progression is rather fascinating, as it is the opposite of what we’re used to, which is a passionate and fiery introduction to a subject, later supported by facts, and ending in a call to action.

Sowell looks at intellectual's influence in the media – where events are skewed with such liberal bias that society hardly recounts Stalin murdering 6 million plus Ukrainians or Hoover’s interventionist and philanthropic ways – their influence in academia – where ideas are judged in an insular way by like-minded peers – and their influence in the law – where inconsistent calls for judicial activism and social justice seem to undermine the law’s purpose.

Sowell paraphrases Schumpter, writing how huge social catastrophes can kill millions of people without having the least effect on advancing theory.

The book culminates in two long chapters about intellectuals and war. If anything, Sowell shows that wars do have an effect on intellectuals, but it is more of an emotional effect than a rational one. French intellectuals widely adopted pacifism after World War I. School teachers went so far as to imbue it in the nation’s children, to the extent where Hitler decided to invade France based largely on their lack of support for engagement. His commanders advised against this – and later studies reveal France to be superior militarily – but Hitler attacked based on his views of the French morale. Such widespread pacifism in Europe also delayed England from mounting an effective response, and made the war much more costly than it might have been otherwise.

To a degree, the intellectual attitude before the war was that one must live and fight for one’s ideals. After the war, it was that men’s courage is a fickle thing, and war is a silly game. The point, however, in focusing so heavily on war is to show how such events go far in shaping intellectuals' emotional reactions without in the least sharpening their quality of thought.

The events that unfolded in the ‘60s were somewhat similar. America lost the Vietnam War not because of its lack of manpower – and not because of the difficult battle terrain – but due to its lack of support at home. The North Vietnamese intentionally made it a war of endurance, and despite their stunning losses – up to and through the Tet Offensive – their saving grace, as they later admitted, was the war’s unpopularity in America. Such lack of military backbone escalated the Cold War as well, which – despite intellectual calls for disarmament – was won by Reagan’s purposeful decision to make it an arms race rather than a traditional war.

Such examples chip away at the notion that pacifism breeds peace. More important than one’s conclusion, however, is the recognition that things like the of idea of pacifism are more like hypotheses – subject, to the degree possible, to historical support – than truths.

We all have values, judgments, assumptions about the world. But to hide certain beliefs from real-world scrutiny only does them a disservice. If one believes in a certain policy, for instance, because it reduces poverty, then certainly it behooves that person to see whether it actually reduces poverty.

Certainly not every idea or notion that has real-world implications need be supported by reason. One can go on acting kindly to their fellow men without necessarily needing a specific or good reason for doing so. Parents don't need to adopt an ideology to love their children. But it is a common mistake to assume that such ideas are based on a neat underlying logic, as if a pious Christian who says that he loves God because of all his beautiful creations might re-assess his love for God, should the evidence overwhelmingly suggest that his creations were in fact not beautiful, or that his creations were in fact not created by him. Such is often a confusion of induction and deduction. In all likelihood, one starts out liking God, and then finds a reason why. But that reason, then, is hardly useful for convincing others. This sort of confusion is much more common in discussions of social policy, where arguments are more often cloaked in objectivity.

To a large degree, the world has accepted the notion that many ideas need real-world verification. However, a deceptively large amount of arguments use reason, but are more like the example with the pious man, where the reason falls second to the conclusion, in turn revealing that the conclusion is more of an assumption. This has simply created a process whereby people look for whatever verification supports their theory and scrap the rest.

On the contrary, when one looks at the wealth of available real-world knowledge – ranging from history to news and the internet, from publicly available data to nationwide trends and scientific analyses, from society’s vast collections of mundane everyday experiences to the narrow yet advanced scope of select experts – one is rather awed by a sense humility rather than empowerment. Indeed, real-world knowledge does not exist simply to be cherry-picked according to one’s own beliefs, but to be made sense of, and to form one’s beliefs. I am often struck by it all with an overwhelming crushing of ego. But at the same time, ego is precisely not the point.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photos: (1)Thomas Sowell, Stephen Camarata; (2) Raising the Flag, 10/07/2009, P.E.S.H.; (3)radiotelecopen, radio telescopes HDR, 09/25/2008, Bram Reinders.
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